Conscience-free science: The future mobility killer?

Mobility is at the heart of the EU’s prosperity; a planned approach to growing mobility while avoiding environmental impacts is essential, argues Dominique Riquet.

| Photo Credit: European Parliament Audiovisual

By Dominique Riquet

15 Feb 2019

European Mobility is at a crossroads. With the publication of the three Mobility Packages, it is a top priority for the EU agenda.

However, the sector faces many challenges and aims at several, sometimes conflicting objectives.

While transport is essential to our daily lives, territorial cohesion and our economic growth and trade (around 10 percent of the EU GDP and employment), it also accounts for a third of all final energy consumption in Europe and more than a fifth of greenhouse gas emissions.


To address this, the EU has set an ambitious array of objectives, such as reducing oil dependency and transport emissions by 60 percent by 2050.

How can we reconcile these economic, social and environmental objectives? How can we maintain jobs, respond to our growing mobility needs, preserve and strengthen our competitiveness in a context of intensified international competition whilst meeting our emission reduction goals?

This is not a brainteaser, but rather the harsh dilemmas regulators face. Nevertheless, many advanced technological progress as the potential solution, the terms of which I seek to discuss in this brief article.

There is no doubt that a mobility revolution is ahead, one that will be driven by innovation. It will affect every aspect of mobility, starting with the vehicles themselves.

“There is no doubt that a mobility revolution is ahead, one that will be driven by innovation. It will affect every aspect of mobility, starting with the vehicles themselves”

We have, and will have, access to a wider range of vehicle types, fuels, engines and materials; coherent, synergic use of these will help reduce our environmental impact, depending on our needs (for example, electricity has high potential for private cars, but hydrogen seems better suited for long-haul freight transportation).

Meanwhile, the rise of connected and autonomous vehicles will make transport systems more efficient overall, reducing accidents and congestion and improving public health in Europe.

As vehicles change, infrastructure will have to modernise in tandem, in order to reap all the benefits from these advances in transport.

How can we power an alternative-fuel vehicle without abundant and adequate charging stations? Would the deployment of connected cars happen without the appropriate digital infrastructure?

The completion/achievement of the Trans-European Transport Network - requiring a €1.5 trillion investment - is expected to improve the transport network efficiency and interoperability, triggering a modal shift away from road transport - which currently contributes almost 75 percent of the EU’s overall transport GHG emissions - towards less-polluting modes such as rail or inland waterways.

This should allow us to reduce our externalities. In these future mobility issues, technology will play a key role in reducing our environmental impact.

It will require a collective effort, involving both private and public players: car manufacturers, insurers, investors, consumers, public authorities and decision-makers.

However, will this be enough? Is it naïve to believe that technology alone can somehow remove both our dependence on fossil fuels and our transport-related ecological footprint? It probably won’t.

Does this mean that technology has failed, that it cannot deliver on its promises and therefore we should go back to using horses and bicycles to fulfil our mobility needs? Not quite.

It can still serve as a powerful tool for more profound change, supporting a genuine paradigm shift in how we understand and use transport, as is apparent in the MaaS (Mobility as a Service) concept.

Put simply, it uses new technologies - particularly smartphones - to find the best door-to-door travel solutions by combining the various modes of public and private transport available, according to the user’s needs.

For example, how we currently use vehicles is highly inefficient. Cars, for example, spend 95 percent of their lifetime parked and have a 1.7 passengers seat-occupancy rate.

We can do better. MaaS proposes to optimising the whole transportation system.

According to some scenarios, this could reduce the number of cars in cities such as Lisbon by 90 percent, if properly combined with a developed public transport system, while still meeting the same mobility needs and drastically reducing our emissions.

“Less is more” could be the new motto of tomorrow’s mobility.

Of course, MaaS poses many challenges and I do not propose abolishing private cars. Yet the room for improvement is huge although such a shift will require a societal reflection, which may prove the hardest part.

Cars are perceived as more than a mere mode of transport; they are status symbols and social markers.

Many public policy examples show the difficulties in trying to push for an end to individual car ownership. In addition, MaaS cannot be the panacea for mobility issues; while it offers an adequate option for urban areas it is not feasible for rural areas.

However, it offers insights in how we reconcile Europe’s varying mobility challenges.

The mobility package integrates innovation effectively for vehicles and infrastructures. It is up to the EU to ensure that the ecosystem of transport networks develops at a satisfactory pace.

However, given the local nature of emerging mobility solutions, it is for Member States and intermediate bodies to experiment with alternative policies to discover tomorrow’s safe, clean and connected mobility.

Of course, no one can be sure of the precise impact of new technologies on transport.

Would connected and autonomous cars make private cars more desirable than ever, which would increase their numbers on the road as well as the polluting emissions that come with them? It’s hard to predict.

However, technology remains the best tool we have at our disposal, as long as it is accompanied by a collective public debate and strong political will.

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